David's Blog

On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest.  Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!

“It makes maintenance easier, understanding what my body is doing, what is going on if things go haywire.”


Is Neil Walker becoming a star?

April 22, 2014 by Travis Sawchik


PNC PARK – We know Neil Walker is a consistent, useful player. Walker tallied 2.6 Wins Above Replacement in 2011. He produced 2.6 WAR in 2012. He totaled a 2.7 WAR in 2013. If you examine just that one metric that attempts to boil a player’s ability down to one number, Walker looked like a solid but stagnant player entering his Age 28 season this spring.

But quietly Walker has been improving in some important areas over time, and perhaps those improvements are accelerating in 2014.

*Walker is making more contact. His strikeout rate continues to decline from 19.6 percent in 2012, to 15.4 percent in 2013 to 11.5 percent this season. What’s interesting is this decline is occurring at a time when strikeouts are up considerably throughout the game


(Walker also has two walk-off hits this season … the first two of his career)

*Walker’s zone contact – the amount of times he swings and makes contact with a ball in the strike zone – has improved from 88.6 percent in 2010 to 90.5 percent in 2012 to 93.8 percent early this season. That’s an elite contact rate, ranking 37th in the game this season.

*Not only is Walker making more contact, he’s hitting with more power. His isolated power and home runs have increased every year since 2011 and this year it’s taken an early spike. His isolated power is in slugger territory at .250. Yes, I know it’s early, but Walker has hit as many home runs as the Royals (6).

*It’s early but Walker is hitting .429 as a right-handed hitter. Remember when everyone wanted Walker to give up switch hitting? Well, he went to work on it to shut every one up this offseason.

I’ve worked on so many different things mechanically over the last several years but the only thing that I worked on this offseason was getting my hands into a little bit better hitting position, similar to my left-handed swing,” Walker said. “That was my focus. I wanted both my sides to be somewhat similar. It makes maintenance easier, understanding what my body is doing, what is going on if things go haywire.”

Oh, he isn’t done.

*Walker has also improved his strike zone judgement. He posted a career-best walk rate last season (9.1 percent). His out-of-zone swing percentage has dropped five points early this season.

Walker has improved as an offensive player in three straight seasons. Perhaps this early spike in 2014 is more, real improvement. And perhaps with more patience, and more power, if it holds, Walker can become a 4-win player. Perhaps Walker is becoming more than Local Boy Done Good. Perhaps he is becoming a legit star.


“I find comfort in knowledge”


April 22, 2014



You wouldn't be wrong to think of the development of David Hale, starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, as an equation to solve. 

Hale didn't disagree with this characterization, when I put it to him that way last Friday afternoon. That he was at home with such an idea makes sense, given his degree in economics from Princeton University.

Hale was already 21 years old when the Braves took him in the third round of the 2009 draft, nearly 22. He'd played more center field than pitcher at Princeton, too. So it's been more or less a race for Hale ever since, trying to catch up to his competition for a major league job.

And the Braves, in drafting and developing Hale, are betting that the lack of wear and tear on his arm will be more beneficial than his lack of experience will hurt him.

It probably helps when the person asked to learn quickly to make up the gap is the remarkably bright Hale. So far, the bet seems to be paying off.

"I think it's both a drawback and a plus," Hale said to me as we talked in front of his locker prior to Friday's game between the Mets and the Braves. "Yes, I have less mileage on my arm, but at the same time, I had to learn more, and I was on a slower plan through the minor leagues, spending a year at each level. So that's a little bit of a drawback. And I still had to learn things that guys who had already pitched for longer already knew."

Still, Hale acknowledges that who he is helps to make up the gap, or at least bend the learning curve a bit.

"I'm pretty dedicated to what I do," Hale said. "I studied video a lot. I find comfort in knowledge, and comfort in seeing people in video and seeing them step in the box and feel like I've seen them before. I do think that is a product of my education and just the way I've been brought up. Yeah, I think they value it."

That's not to say Hale minimizes the challenge he faced. The Braves added Hale, a Georgia product who grew up rooting for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, at a time he was a self-described thrower.

"Essentially, I had a slider and a four-seam fastball," Hale said. "Pretty basic. I threw hard, so I was able to get away with some mistakes at that level, stuff that you can't get away with at a higher level."

Hale was a bit older than his competition in each of his first four seasons in the Braves' system. He suffered through intermittent control problems, added a changeup, but found himself with an unorthodox problem: the righty had significantly more success against lefties than he did against his own kind.

"I added the sinker last year," Hale said. "I think that's been helping me out with both sides of the plate. At Double-A, I was way better against lefties. So it's getting closer. It's just that I have confidence in my changeup, and that helps me out against lefties."

So it was essentially the perfect marriage of pitcher and coach when Roger McDowell, the Braves' major league pitching coach, got ahold of Hale in January 2013, during the team's early throwing camp in Atlanta prior to spring training. Hale, a hard worker spending the offseason at his Georgia home, jumped at the chance to attend.

"Watching David throw, and talking to him, it was the first time I'd really laid eyes on him," McDowell told me Friday as we talked in the Braves' dugout. "So we talked about his pitches, and what his percentage of four-seam to two-seam was. Because he did throw a two-seam fastball, but he didn't have a whole lot of confidence in it, and he didn't have a whole lot of command of it. So that's when we started talking about the sinker, just playing with it, working with the grip, and understanding what the pitch does, what we're trying to accomplish with the pitch, making sure the pitch looks strike-to-ball, rather than ball-to-ball."

McDowell is no one-trick pony with pitches, and has succeeded with Braves hurlers that feature varied repertoires. In this case, though, Hale was learning a sinker from a guy whose 12-year career featured a ton of ground balls and no significant platoon split thanks to, yes, the sinker.

But teaching a guy another pitch, and not just a complementary one, but what became his primary pitch in 2013, is anything but simple. Again, that's where Hale's intelligence served as an important equalizer.

"Well, I know he attended and apparently graduated from Princeton," McDowell said. "As pitching coaches, we're always trying to help, not hinder, and understanding if a player has that aptitude. And the only way we find that out is by suggestions, and seeing if he's able to put that into work.

"I wasn't surprised [by his success]. And maybe it goes back to that Princeton degree, that he was able to get through the process, and understand what we had talked about, and what he could become, and that is a ground ball pitcher."

Hale's strikeout rate dipped a bit at Triple-A in 2013, playing at a level where he was younger than the league average for the first time in his career. But his walk rate went way down. And he really seemed to figure things out in August and September. Over his final nine minor league starts, he struck out 43, walked 11, and pitched to a 3.20 ERA in 53 1/3 innings.

That success with his four-pitch repertoire continued in a pair of Atlanta starts. Hale walked just one and struck out 14 with the Braves last September.

"I was feeling it at Triple-A, prior to coming up," Hale recalled. "The second half of my Triple-A season was really good. I felt like I carried it over well, and I'm sure the adrenaline of being up and playing with the Braves helped that. I'm actually pretty sure it did," Hale said with a chuckle.

It's been tougher for Hale early on this season, particularly in the control department. He's walked nine in 15 1/3 innings so far over three starts, though he's managed to avoid trouble overall, pitching to a 2.93 ERA. Still, Hale knows this is no recipe for long-term success, and that he needs to make adjustments.

"You're always tweaking things here and there," Hale said. "Sometimes I get rotational, and you want to be more down through the plate," and Hale gestured with the straight-ahead body movement he preferred. "There's just a few little drills that Roger's been showing me. It's something I've struggled with for a long time, and it's getting better and better. I'll probably be tweaking it for the rest of my career."

McDowell diagnosed this particular issue prior to Hale's most recent start, and Hale walked only two in six innings on Sunday against the Mets.

"David was playing catch a couple of weeks ago," McDowell said. "And I noticed he was off, going a bit to his arm side, throwing across his body. That's one of the problems he has, getting rotational. With the thought of -- some of these ballparks have terrific outfield cutlines, where we can kind of envision a hallway. And when we envision staying in that hallway, we can kind of envision the direction we need to be throwing the baseball."

Plenty of people are hoping that Hale's brain can outrun his experience going forward, with ample help from McDowell. There's Hale, of course, who just bought a house in Marietta this past offseason, and would love to stay with his boyhood team forever. There's the Braves, who badly need Hale after the injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.

And there's his teammates, who get the benefit of a Princeton grad with an Economics degree in their clubhouse whenever they need investment advice.

"Some people ask me what I've done with my bonus," Hale said. "I'll give them the general knowledge of what I have. It's been a while since I've messed around with it. It's a little rusty for me."

Understandable. Hale's impressive mind has been on other things.



“high school pitchers who throw with fatigue increase their odds of injuring their shoulder or elbow by 3,600 percent.”

Tommy John surgery rebuilds pitchers' careers


April 21, 2014

Former Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz calls it "the greatest surgery in the world."

No procedure has saved more pitchers' careers than Tommy John surgery, which replaces a torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon from another part of the body.

But Smoltz, who had Tommy John in 2000, said it has become way too commonplace. When Rays All-Star left-hander Matt Moore has the surgery today in Pensacola, performed by team medical director Dr. James Andrews, he'll be the 13th major-league pitcher this season to do so, just six fewer than all of last year. Moore will join front-line starters such as the A's Jarrod Parker and Braves' Kris Medlen on a 12- to 15-month recovery.

"I hate it," said Smoltz, an eight-time All-Star starter and closer, now an MLB Network analyst. "It's a great epidemic. A lot of future studs are on the shelf. It's alarming."

Part of it is that UCL tears are more easily diagnosed due to technology, and the success rate of the surgery is strong. A study published in December in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed an 83 percent rate of return to the majors among 179 pitchers who had it, and 97.2 percent return to pitching in the pros.

But while Andrews said the large number of Tommy Johns this year is likely an "outlier," there has been a gradual increase on these procedures — at every level — since 2000.

Andrews believes a key culprit is the youth baseball culture, with pitchers throwing harder, and more innings, year-round. Risk factors include velocity, usage, fatigue and mechanics, with genetics playing a role, which is why it has been difficult to pinpoint one cause or solution.

But Andrews said that though there's no way to completely prevent UCL tears, much like ACL injuries, he's searching for ways to curtail them so he's not so busy with Tommy Johns.

"I've done too many to count, and not enough to quit," Andrews said. "I'm trying to put myself out of business with prevention. That would be great."

• • •

Andrews said many of these young big-league pitchers having Tommy John are likely the prodigy of their youth and high school baseball days.

He points out that there has been a significant jump in school-age players having Tommy John — up "five- or sevenfold" since 2000 — with the youngest he has operated on being 12 years old.

The UCL is key to the stability of a pitcher's fragile elbow, absorbing the force of a furious whiplash as he makes each throw. Think of it like a rubber band that frays as you stretch it over and over. Slowly, it cracks, reducing its strength.

Andrews said younger pitchers, whose ligaments are still developing, are being pressured to light up radar guns, pitching more competitive innings year-round to impress scouts or colleges. They're not getting enough rest to recuperate.

He also said studies by the nonprofit American Sports Medicine Institute, of which he is a founder, have shown that high school pitchers who throw with fatigue increase their odds of injuring their shoulder or elbow by 3,600 percent. The risk factors for velocity begin at 85 mph, with 90 a "high risk" in damaging the ligament.

"I think it's insane," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I think too many parents are trying to have their kids become professionals at an early age to fulfill their lifelong dreams and not necessarily the kid's, and I think that's where maybe it's starting to all break down. … It's been part of the fabric of baseball for many, many years. I think the recent epidemic, to me, might be tied to what they do before they even get here, professionally."

Smoltz thinks it's "backwards" that as much as major-league teams micromanage innings and pitch counts for their minor-leaguers, youths are playing 100 games a year. Andrews, in a research committee funded by MLB, has put out guidelines and educational programs for youth sports (www.stopsportsinjuries.org).

"If we don't do anything about these kids getting hurt in high school," Andrews said, "we're not going to have anybody to draft."

• • •

When the late Dr. Frank Jobe replaced the torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of Dodgers lefty Tommy John in 1974, he likely didn't think he pioneered the most famous surgery in sports.

John, then 31, went on to pitch 14 more years after the operation, winning 164 extra games without ever missing a start due to an elbow problem. Before the procedure, named after John, the injury was often career ending.

"This was death to pitching," Smoltz said. "To come back was unheard of."

Smoltz was 34, having pitched 12 big-league seasons (and in five World Series) when he was talked into having the surgery by John himself. Smoltz, having pitched for three or four years with a partially torn ligament, was considering retiring before John's surprise phone call.

"I thought somebody was pranking me," Smoltz said. "He encouraged me. I was down and out, I was done. I was in the last year of my contract, 34 years old, who is going to wait? Lo and behold he talked me through the process. Greatest thing I ever did."

Smoltz would pitch nine more seasons, converting to a closer, making another four All-Star appearances and racking up 154 saves. Next year, Smoltz could become the first pitcher to have Tommy John and get elected into the Hall of Fame.

"That speaks volumes to the unknown of the surgery," Smoltz said.

A 2013 study by Bleacher Report injury analyst Will Carroll found that one-third of active big-league pitchers had Tommy John surgery during their career (124 of the 360 who opened the season). Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright are among those who have come back strong. But Andrews points out that while the success rate is high, there are many possible complications, including nerve problems.

Around 40 pitchers have had to have multiple Tommy Johns, according to Yahoo's Jeff Passan, who is writing a book on the surgery called The Arm.

"When you blow out once," Passan says, "chances are you're going to blow out again."

Passan, who followed two pitchers from their surgery through recovery, said it's a brutal process and very tough to come back from. The lack of a solution, the "mystery," makes it fascinating to study, he says.

"In baseball, arm injuries are a malady," Passan said. "It's the thing that loses more money than any other sport loses for any other reason. The fact (MLB) is just finally choosing to invest money and time into this is ludicrous.

"For an industry that does such a good job of focusing on the inefficiencies and trying to lessen them, these arm injuries have lasted far too long."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

Rebuilding a damaged elbow

Thousands of people with injured elbow joints have received Tommy John surgery, which was first performed 40 years ago on former Dodger pitcher Tommy John by Dr. Frank Jobe.

What it is: The surgeon replaces a torn ulnar collateral ligament on the inside of the elbow. The ligament ties together the elbow's two largest bones.

Why it's done: The purpose of the surgery is to restore stability of the elbow to resist stress.

How it's done: A wrist tendon is taken from the patient and grafted in place of the damaged elbow ligament.

How the joint heals: Immediately after surgery, the patient begins to rebuild strength by gently squeezing a soft sponge. After seven months, about 50 percent of the arm's strength has returned. Full recovery takes 12-18 months.

Ulnar: Larger of the forearm's two bones

Medial collateral ligament: Damaged

Humerus: Large bone in upper arm

KRT | Times

By the numbers

13 Big-league pitchers that have had Tommy John surgery this year

40 Pitchers who have had multiple Tommy John surgeries

83 Percent success rate of return to the majors

5 Pitchers to have Tommy John as Rays major-leaguers

(Source: Jeff Passan, Yahoo; American Journal of Sports Medicine)

Big-league pitchers having Tommy John surgery this season

LHP Matt Moore Rays

RHP Cory Gearrin Braves

RHP Bobby Parnell Mets

RHP Erik Davis Nationals

RHP David Hernandez Dbacks

RHP Peter Moylan Dodgers

RHP Bruce Rondon Tigers

LHP Patrick Corbin Dbacks

RHP Jarrod Parker A's

RHP Brandon Beachy Braves

RHP Kris Medlen Braves

RHP Luke Hochevar Royals

LHP Cory Luebke Padres



“I'm just going to try and get outs." 


Staying ahead means plenty of tinkering for pitchers

Eno Saris FOXSports.com



Over the course of a career, every starting pitcher has to deal with change. As the velocity on their pitches wanes or the league figures out what they throw, they have to continually adapt; feature secondary pitches more often, develop new pitches, add wrinkles to old pitches, or mix up their pitch selections to keep hitters off balance. If you want to get 600 outs per year, every year, you can't do the same thing every time out.

For Zack Greinke, much of that story of adaptation revolves around his slider.

There were the heady times, of course. The 2009 season with Kansas City brought a Cy Young Award. His slider? "It was amazing, the best pitch I ever had," Greinke said before a game with the Giants last week. That pitch was a big part of how he posted a 2.16 ERA and struck out 242 batters.

Unfortunately, time comes for all pitchers. For Greinke, he saw it in the slider. The pitch "slowly got a little worse," Greinke said -- it was "coming out real good, but the hitters weren't really reacting to it." Why? Greinke shrugged. That 2009 slider "was just better, it just happens." Watch the rates on the pitch drop:




Swinging Strike





















In 2010, then-teammate Brian Bannister was a proponent of sabermetrics. Greinke took to it, famously telling Tyler Kepner that he tried to keep his FIP as low as possible. That meant focusing on strikeouts, walks and homers -- sometimes trying to coax fly balls in Kauffman's large confines, and then later trying to get a lot of ground balls in Milwaukee's launching pad.

The ground-ball approach didn't lead to his best seasons. "They weren't soft grounders, they were well-hit ground balls, they were getting hit really hard" Greinke said of the grounders in Milwaukee. Between 2008 and 2010, hitters never managed a 20% line-drive rate against him. In Milwaukee, they had a 22% line-drive rate (21% is average). In a related matter: "I don't really try to get ground balls any more."

But there was something else going on, specifically with his slider. Greinke started experimenting with a cutter in 2010 and 2011. "That might have messed with the slider," said the Dodgers pitcher. "Whenever you throw two similar pitches, they end up meshing."

Greinke thought most pitchers trying to throw the cutter and slider would run into this problem. The grips are too similar, the movement and mechanics start blending. When you take a look at the league overall, it turns out Greinke is correct. To create the table below, I looked at the 30 pitchers who most often use each off-speed pitch and then looked at which other off-speed pitches they also featured. You can see that the slider/cutter pairing is one of the rarest in baseball, even within the group of pitches that break the same general direction:

Primary Off-Speed

% SL

% CT

% CB

















Back to Greinke -- his excellent slider and meh cutter, when put together, "became two average pitches." The numbers seem to agree. Check out the difference in velocity and movement on the slider before and after he started experimenting with the cutter. In 2009, the pitch went 85.7 mph and moved 3.6 inches horizontally and 0.6 inches vertically.


Trying CT

Throwing CT














Some of this change to Greinke's slider -- more horizontal movement and less vertical movement -- is maybe permanent. "I switched the grip on my slider, so the spin off my fingers is different than it used to be," he admitted. But now that the cutter is out of the arsenal, the slider is ready to rock. His reach, swing, and swinging strike rates on his feature pitch are all up significantly in the early going this year.

And in the meantime, the rest of Greinke's arsenal has matured. Take the change-up; he's thrown it his whole career, but it hasn't been the same pitch. "It was an awful pitch, they just wanted me to work on it," the pitcher said of the Royals' coaching staff. "It's been bad for a long time." But the hard work is paying off ("Every year it gets a little better"): the average change gets 15% whiffs, and Greinke's change managed that last year for the first time in his career, after years of hovering around 10%. That number jumps to 17% against lefties -- "It's probably my best pitch to lefties now," Greinke agrees.

The pitcher has also changed his mind a bit about pitching to FIP these days. Back when he thought about the stat more often, he noticed something: "I kept having good FIP and xFIP but my actual ERA was higher than those numbers."

The three-year stretch between 2010 and 2012 is the only stretch of his career where that was true. Sometime in August of 2012, Greinke had enough: "I'm done trying to pitch to that stuff, I'm just going to try and get outs."

What has that meant? It's meant a few more changes and curves as he's willing to trade weak contact for swinging strikes. It's meant, perhaps unconsciously, a slight return to pitching further down in the zone. It's meant tinkering with and then scrapping the cutter.

It's all the things that a pitcher has to do when he's faced with change in his pitching mix. player Dhani Jones' BowTie Cause (bowtiecause.com) organization, and he'll be donning the neckwear during FOX games to raise awareness for When your slider doesn't get the same reactions that it used to, "you have to come up with why it's happening and try to mix something else in," as Zack Greinke put it.



"I wanted to prove something to myself, and I got caught up in the moment."

April 07, 2014

Speed Racer

Carlos Hyde has a plan to improve his 40



When Carlos Hyde crossed the finish line following his first—and only—40-yard dash at the NFL combine, he gritted his teeth and looked up to the ceiling of Lucas Oil Stadium. He was in pain. Some of it was physical; the former Ohio State tailback had pulled his left hamstring. But much of the anguish was mental. The hamstring had been bothering him for a week, so Hyde had debated whether he should even sprint for scouts in Indianapolis. "I probably shouldn't have run, but I wanted to compete," Hyde says. "I wanted to prove something to myself, and I got caught up in the moment."

The result was a 4.66 40, nearly two-tenths of a second slower than the 6-foot, 230-pound Hyde had hoped to run. "I was devastated," he says. Though NFL coaches and personnel officials don't base draft decisions entirely on 40 times, Hyde knew his sprint performance wouldn't help him in his quest to be the first back taken in the draft. Though Hyde averaged 7.3 yards per carry for the Buckeyes in 2013 and played his best in Ohio State's biggest games, his relatively slow 40 time could push him behind Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey or Auburn's Tre Mason on many draft boards. It's possible that no team will select a back in the first round this year, but Hyde had still hoped to be the first among the position—whenever that is.

After his hamstring recovered, Hyde went back to work to prove to NFL teams that he could run faster than he had in Indianapolis. He concentrated on drills that would improve his start in the 40 and agility exercises to prepare him to perform the three-cone and shuttle sprints his hamstring injury had forced him to miss at the combine. Two weeks ago Hyde worked out privately for several NFL teams. He says he ran the 40 in "the mid 4.5s" and calls his agility performance "phenomenal."

To see if NFL teams agree with Hyde's self-evaluation, we'll have to wait until the draft, in May. Until then, though, Hyde's training is worth a closer look




April 07, 2014

Hyde's Top 40

The running back enlisted Miami-based trainer Marc Megna to help him get back to the starting line



The ladder allows athletes to increase speed and sharpen agility. "We're just trying to get him to move his feet in the most efficient manner possible," Megna says. "It gets his legs prepared for quick, explosive steps, in which his feet don't spend too much time in the air." Hyde does a straight run (one foot in every hole), two-foot run, lateral run (one foot per), lateral shuffle (two feet per) and bunny hops. Two sets of each.


"The start is where you spend the most time," says Megna, which is why the seconds between the gun and the 20-yard mark are the best chance to shave time. "You want to come out low, head down and just drive," Hyde says. "Then you hit second gear, and you're just rolling." His drill? Hyde does a series of starts, bursting off the line while keeping his head down and focusing on the ground just in front of him. Six reps.


Once out of the blocks, "from the 10 to the 20 is key," says Hyde. The goal is to retain as much of the forward body lean from the start as possible while thrusting arms and legs forward aggressively. To hone those moves, Hyde practices by pulling against a fixed object while maintaining proper form. Six sets of 30 seconds each.


"Arm action is crucial in the 40," Hyde says. "The faster your arms move, the faster your legs will move." To improve his arm swing, Hyde rests on one knee. He starts pumping his arms at walking speed, builds to a jog and then a sprint, concentrating on an efficient, straight back-and-forth motion. Three sets of 30 seconds each.